I am going to start to see the Kansas Jayhawks a lot in the coming weeks in my Big 12 travels, so making the claim that they are the best team in the country right now will brand me a "homer." I am aware of that. So, let me explain how I feel about the "Fran-tastic Four" right now: Kansas, Memphis, UCLA and North Carolina.
No. 1 Kansas
This team has depth, experience and balance.
The Jayhawks have had seven different leading scorers in the last nine games, eight different players average 17 or more minutes and no starter plays more than 29 minutes. A McDonald's All-American and, arguably, Kansas' best player at the end of last season, Sherron Collins comes off the bench. Seven players are averaging 7 points or more and no player is averaging more than 14 points a game, so, the Jayhawks have a similar look to the Florida Gators, who were nit-picked last season for not having a "go-to" guy.
On the defensive end, it's rare to have two guards as good as Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson. Collins and junior Brandon Rush are above average defenders, as well. In fact, the Jayhawks average 11 steals per game. And, if they don't steal the ball or disrupt your offense with a deflection, they defend the lane as well as any, also. They block over 6.5 shots per game.
Experience is critical component of Kansas' success. Since a 10-6 start in 2005-2006, the Jayhawks are 65-7 and have won 31 of 32 games. The talented but sometimes erratic young Bill Self teams of the past couple of seasons have matured, in part, because most of them have stuck around instead of jumping to the NBA. Rush and sophomore Darrell Arthur could have been out the door last June, but Rush tore an ACL and Arthur deemed himself not quite ready. And, while a number of players could eventually make NBA rosters, four-year guys Robinson, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun have become critical parts of Kansas' program.
The Jayhawks might not go undefeated in the Big 12 regular season, but it will take a very good effort to beat them. And, while Self has won seven league titles in his last nine years as a head coach, taken three different schools to the Elite Eight (including Kansas twice), NCAA losses to Bradley and Bucknell still weigh heavily on the minds of those who doubt this team. This could be the year the doubters are proven wrong.
No. 2 UCLA
With Darren Collison getting healthy, Kevin Love establishing himself as the leading candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year and the Bruins playing their typically stingy defense, Ben Howland has his Bruins hitting stride and playing as well as anyone in the country.
Love has proven to be as good as advertised. While fellow freshman Michael Beasley is establishing himself as the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the NBA draft and Tyler Hansbrough is putting up, typically, huge offensive numbers, Love might be the most complete big man in the country. In addition to being a great passer and rebounder, he is a "foul magnet", getting the foul line 121 times already this season, and is starting to keep defenses honest away from the basket.
I love Collison, one of the three or four best point guards in the country, because he anchors the Bruins defense. Teams start their offense further out on the floor because of his ability to pressure the ball. And, like Kansas, UCLA has a physical front line presence with Lorenzo Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to contain a Hansbrough or Georgetown's Roy Hibbert.
Russell Westbrook, like Kansas' Chalmers, is Howland's most versatile perimeter player, offensively and defensively. Josh Shipp, whose outside shot can be streaky, is a terrific mid-range scorer who gives the Bruins, what I would call a "quiet go-to" scorer much like Brandon Rush.
While UCLA doesn't have the overwhelming defensive athleticism of the Jayhawks, they are every bit as tough. Kansas has a little more depth and has the size and quickness to double-team Love. Although the front lines match up very well, I think I'd give Kansas a slight edge on the perimeter. This would be a great national championship game.
No. 3 Memphis
Of the best four teams right now, the Tigers may be the most athletic. Defensively, they are on a par with both UCLA and Kansas. However, their offense scares me, at times, because unlike the other three elite teams, they don't get to the line often and when they do, they are shooting under 60 percent. That surprises me because their style of dribble attack basketball should be conducive to getting fouled often.
The Tigers outside shooting is better than it has been, but it can still blow hot and cold. That is a "red flag" to me because a brilliant and potentially undefeated regular season can be spoiled in the tournament with one poor performance.
While I am sold on terrific freshman Derrick Rose's future, he has had an inconsistent season, so far. He is the prototype NBA point guard prospect and will go no lower than No. 3 in the draft, but his turnover rate and decision-making make him dangerous for Calipari in a crucial NCAA Tournament game. Ultimately, I would rather have him with me than against me in a big spot but both UCLA and Kansas' backcourts could cause him havoc.
Now, for the good news. Joey Dorsey blew me away up close this year. John Calipari has successfully convinced him that his ticket to the NBA is as a defensive force. He has great timing and rebounds out of his area well enough to play at the next level. He has to stay out of foul trouble in a matchup with Love or Hansbrough in order for Memphis to win.
No. 4 North Carolina
I just got to see the Tar Heels last week and they have the three best offensive players on a team in the country. The combination of Ty Lawson running Roy Williams' fast break, Hansbrough pounding people inside and Wayne Ellington knocking down 3's and, now, mid-range jumpers, is explosive. Throw in the versatile Danny Green off the bench and the Heels can score on anyone. Their problem, at the moment, is that they don't guard like other three teams I've talked about and this has driven ol' Roy nuts.
Losing Bobby Frasor for the season hurts Carolina's depth and will keep Lawson on the floor more than Williams would like. In addition, Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson have been below average scorers inside and don't have the length to affect games on the glass and defensively like Brandon Wright did a year ago. Marcus Ginyard is a terrific role player defensively but provides little in the way of offense.
Ultimately, Roy Williams' best lineup might have to include Danny Green playing some power forward. While it has been effective at times this year and they could get away with it most nights in ACC play, it's likely not to effective if the Heels match up with UCLA and Kansas deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Coach K's Small Ball
Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils are looking an awful lot like the team that won the 1997 ACC championship playing "small ball." That team included Jeff Capel, Steve Wojciechowski and Trajan Langdon in the backcourt and Chris Carrawell and St. John's transfer Roshown McLeod up front. Four starters shot 38 percent or better from the 3-point line. Greg Newton, like Lance Thomas and the injured Brian Zoubek, held the fort down at times inside. But, in their win over Tim Duncan and Wake Forest in the only meeting that season, Newton played only six minutes and the 6-foot-6 Carrawell had to defend Duncan much of the night.
This year's Duke team is back to playing at a high tempo and is averaging 85 points a game. They are spacing the floor great and, at times, have five terrific shooters and scorers on the court at any one time. I do see glimpses of Team USA's NBA influence in the Blue Devils "new" offense, especially because they are running some great pick-and-roll stuff. But, in reality, it has been about their great spacing on the floor that allows them to attack teams off the dribble. It's Coach K's motion offense and it's worked for years.
This year's Duke team is explosive and while four players -- Greg Paulus, Taylor King, DeMarcus Nelson and Jon Scheyer -- are shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc, I love the overall athleticism of the team because it manifests itself on both ends of the court. At their best, the Blue Devils are pressuring passing lanes, forcing turnovers and turning the results into easy baskets. And, Nelson has been Coach K's Carrawell, a multi-purpose player, who has become a team leader at both ends.
One other Achilles' heel for the Blue Devils could be their youth. They are one of the youngest teams in the country with only one senior and two juniors among their top ten players. Could that cripple them at key times or will they mauture as team as they battle their way through ACC play?
I can't wait to see one of Duke's biggest tests, so far, on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium versus Clemson. The Tigers can match athletic ability with Duke and will have an advantage inside. On the other hand, the Blue Devils should have success rattling Clemson's young but rapidly maturing guards, Demontez Stitt and Terrence Oglesby. How much Clemson's pressure will bother the Blue Devils will also be intriguing.
It should be a great "chess match" for both teams and give Coach K a sneak preview at defending a big player like Hansbrough later in the season.